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Sifting through the bullshit: Acton Institute pontificates about Antifa

September 12, 2017

There have been all kinds of commentary, from both conservative and liberal sources, about what it means to be part of the group/movement known as antifa.

Part of the problem with how conservative and liberal responses to antifa, is due in part to the fetishization on non-violence. Too many people think that somehow non-violence is a superior moral strategy to embrace, yet more often than not those who advocate this position (in response to antifa) are usually people who do NOT want to practice a basic principle of non-violence.

One of the most basic points of non-violence, besides the call to not participate in harm, is the idea that one will not avoid having harm done to themselves. Most people who scream we need to be non-violent are people to will not do anything that will risk putting their ass on the line. Can you imagine during the Black Freedom Movement, if those who rode buses in the south, sat at segregated lunch counters or put their bodies on the line against police brutality had said, “sorry, we believe in non-violence, but we don’t want to take any risks.” Dr. King famously said, “we will wear you down with our capacity to suffer.”

Now, I think non-violence can be a useful strategy to engage in, but I also think we should never be limited to such strategies or tactics. In fact, we should never foreclose on the use of any tactic. We all need to stop fetishizing non-violence are start understanding the world in terms of power and oppression. I would highly recommend that people read the following books: How Non-violence Protects the State; Pacifism as Pathology and This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.

Acton Institute on antifa

Last Wednesday, the Grand Rapids think tank that defends the Capitalist Class, the Acton Institute, decided they need to share some facts about antifa

The Acton blog post provides 5 facts about antifa, which are worth looking at, as they reflect many of the uninformed assumptions about antifa.

The first sentence of “fact 1” states: Antifa is a radical and often violent protest movement organized around “anti-fascism.” Again, there is that word violent. When the dominant culture gives us images and messages about cops, they don’t usually associate them with being violent. However, not only are cops always heavily armed, they more consistently engage in acts of violence and repression than any other domestic group in the country. Yet, we rarely see the description of cops as being “mostly violent.”

Antifa, does not hesitate to use force to defend people who are being targeted by fascists or to use force against those who come into communities to do actual harm. Those involved in antifa see this as providing real community-based security or creating safe spaces against groups that are white supremacists and fascists.

“Fact 2” from the Acton Institute is not necessarily an inaccurate point, but it is fairly simplistic.

“Fact 3” states: Almost all of those who align with Antifa are from the extreme political left, usually identifying as communists, socialists, or anarchists. Again, this statement is meant to marginalize those involved with antifa, since association with communism, socialism or anarchism is often seen as extremists. However, there are millions of people who identify with communism, socialism or anarchism. What the Acton Institute means by the extreme political left, is really meant to say that anyone who does not celebrate or act as an apologist of capitalism.

“Fact 4” is the most accurate of the facts presented about antifa, mostly because it relies on historian Mark Bray, author of the recent book, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.

“Fact 5” begins with an accurate statement about antifa being decentralized, but then ends with this sentence:

The Department of Homeland Security formally classified Antifa’s activities as “domestic terrorist violence,” according to interviews and confidential law enforcement documents obtained by Politico.

The fact that the Acton Institute considers the Dept. of Homeland Security as a credible source, should tell us something. Also, if you participate in non-violent civil disobedience, the Dept. of Homeland Security also considers you to be violence. You are violent either way, not necessarily because of the tactics you use, but because you challenge and confront the dominant narrative about the state.

For anyone wanting to honestly try to understand what antifa is all about, then I would suggest a few sources:

Read the response from It’s Going Down to Politico’s awful post on antifa.

Check out a recent interview with Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, on Democracy Now

Better yet, you should just read Mark Bray’s book, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, to have a more complete analysis of what antifa or anti-fascism really means.

MLive, Betsy DeVos and White Savior Politics

September 11, 2017

Last Wednesday, MLive ran an article that was based on a segment in a recent NPR edition of This American Life, entitled Vouching Toward Bethlehem.

The headline of the MLive article reads: Betsy DeVos’ history volunteering in Grand Rapids school featured on This American Life. One question to ask ourselves is, why did the MLive reporter use this particular headline? There were numerous themes within the 30 minute NPR piece. Producer Susan Burton talks a bit about the history of Betsy DeVos and school policies around Charter Schools and School Vouchers. The NPR segment also discussed the function and role that Kids Hope USA played in Betsy DeVos deciding to become a volunteer within the Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Kids Hope USA was created to provide an opportunity for Christians to “live out their faith. The mission statement of the group says, “KHUSA offers churches and schools a proven, award-winning model to meet the emotional, social and academic needs of children.”

This dynamic that Kids Hope USA engages in, is part of the NPR segment, with a representative with Kids Hope USA talking about how they area white group of people who were looking to have real life experiences in urban schools. The NPR segment even stated that someone from Kids Hope USA was even driving around in  urban neighborhoods looking for a school that would provide mentors with a great opportunity.

The school that was picked was Burton Elementary School. Burton Elementary is a school that is made up of mostly Spanish speaking students, with parents from countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

The NPR segment focuses on what impact Betsy DeVos had on the lives of 2 particular families that had students attending Burton Elementary School.

In one case, Betsy DeVos bought the family a car and donated presents a Christmas time. In the other case, the current Secretary of Education hired the student’s mother to come work for the family cleaning their house in Holland. In both cases, Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick, took these students out of the public school system and paid for their tuition at private religious schools.

The NPR segment producer discusses this dynamic to some degree and even has an excerpt from a speech that DeVos gave at a recent ALEC conference. The NPR segment chose to focus on the private vs public school angle, but in many ways it seems that they were missing a major component of what was also happening. The very fact that Betsy and Dick DeVos took these students out of the public schools, paid for their tuition and then hired one of the mothers to clean their house in Holland, is nothing short of what is means to practice White Savior politics.

In a recent piece on Everyday Feminism, white savior politics is described this way: 

In the simplest terms, it’s when a white character or person rescues people of color from their oppression. The White Savior is portrayed as the good one, the one that we’re meant to identify with as we watch or read these narratives. They usually learn lessons about themselves along the way. There are many problems with this kind of narrative, some of which I’ll go over.

For instance, it racializes morality by making us consistently identify with the good white person saving the non-white people who are given much less of an identity in these plot lines. It also frames people of color as being unable to solve their own problems. It implies that they always need saving, and that white people are the only ones competent enough to save them. This is very obviously untrue, and it’s a harmful message to relay.

In many ways this is the deeper message of what Betsy DeVos did with these 2 students and their families, while mentoring through Kids Hope USA. It is bad enough that MLive chose to make Betsy look like she really cares about students (as if there aren’t hundreds of volunteers who give their time to mentor kids in the Grand Rapids Public School), but the larger problem with the MLive piece is that it selects a conservative vs liberal narrative that plays well with the public. By creating this left/right dichotomy, the MLive piece conveniently misses the larger White Savior narrative that is the real story highlighted in the NPR segment.

Grand Rapids, Statues and White Supremacy

September 6, 2017

There has been a great deal of public conversation in the weeks following the White Supremacist violence in Charlottesville, around the issue of white supremacy and symbols of white supremacy.

In Charlotteville, the decision was made to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and now there are communities looking to take similar actions to remove statues that reflect White Supremacists leaders or values.

If Grand Rapids was to take inventory of statues that support white supremacy, what might we find?

Like most cities, there is no shortage of statues in Grand Rapids, most of which are to honor certain individuals or specific events in history. There have been several new statues added in recent years, based on a project that has been spearheaded by a member of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, Peter Secchia.

However, maybe a good place to start would be to look at the statue that resides in the little pocket park located at the intersection of Cherry, State and Madison streets. The statue is of a generic US soldier who fought in what is generally identified as the Spanish American Wars.

These wars began in 1898, and were for the purpose of US imperialist expansion, where the US militarily occupied Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines. Here is what the plaque that accompanies the statue states:

Despite the idealistic rhetoric on the plaque, the US engaged in racist military occupations that resulted in the murder of communities of color in each of those countries, with the most violence taking place in the Philippines, because of the insurrection that ensued to fight the US occupation.

According to Alfred McCoy’s book, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State, the US killed 200,000 civilians in the Philippines. McCoy also cites a US General who commented:

It may be necessary to kill half of the Filipinos in order that the remaining half of the population may be advanced to a higher plane of life than their present semi-barbarous state affords.

In each case, the US military legacy has left a bloody path that continues to impact the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico today.

Another statue that should be considered for removal because it normalizes white supremacy, would be the statue that sits in Cathedral Square, by St. Andrews Catholic Church. The statue is that of Bishop Baraga and is part of the Community Legends project headed by Peter Secchia. 

Bishop Baraga is credited with bringing Catholicism to Grand Rapids, but his real work was in his efforts to convert the Ojibway people throughout what is now called Michigan. 

Baraga’s interaction with the Ojibway people also paved the way for genocidal policies that Europeans have implemented over the past 150 years in this area.

Those policies include the outright killing of Native people, stealing Native lands, forced relocation and taking Native children from their communities to put them in boarding schools, something the Catholic Church did in Michigan. The history of these boarding schools included denying Native children to speak their language, dress in traditional clothing, subjected to Christian teaching and also physical and sexual abuse, as is well documented in Kill the Indian, Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools.

This is the legacy of Bishop Baraga, however well intentioned he was, since his commitment to converting the Ojibway paved the way for the harsh policies that followed.

Another statue to consider for removal is the statue in front of the Van Andel Arena that honors Amway co-founder, Jay Van Andel. Van Andel, like his Amway co-founder Rich deVos, funded numerous rightwing groups, both religious and secular. 

At the national level Van Andel funded the Heritage Foundation. They wrote the incoming Reagan administrations policy guide Mandate for Change that advocated the elimination of Food Stamps, Medicare, child nutritional assistance, farm assistance, legal services for the poor, and the repeal of a $1,000 tax exemption for the elderly. 

Jay Van Andel was deeply involved in the largest pro-business lobbying group in the country, the US Chamber of Commerce. In fact, Van Andel was Chairman of the national group for a period of time. The Chamber, which often likes to present itself as a defender of the small business owner, is one of the largest electoral contributors in the nation. According to Open Secrets, the US Chamber has spent $1.2 billion on lobbying since 1998. 

In addition, the US Chamber of Commerce has been one of the most consistent climate deniers in the country and has fought hard against any policy that supports working class people. The Chamber has opposed efforts to get paid sick leave policy passed and numerous other pro-worker policies. As Chairman of the US Chamber of Commerce, Van Andel made sure that whatever policies were being decided in Washington, they needed to benefit the capitalist class that he was a part of.

Maybe the least known of the groups that Van Andel was deeply involved with, was the National Endowment for Democracy, also known as NED. NED was created during the Reagan years as a mechanism to push neoliberal economic policies around the world and funding governments or political parties that would best serve the interest of the US. Allen Weinstein, who helped draft the legislation establishing NED, was quite candid when he said in 1991: “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” 

Jay Van Andel was on the Board of Directors of the National Endowment for Democracy and served in that capacity while the NED was funding death squad governments in Central America, funding opposition parties in Nicaragua and supporting pro-US dictatorships throughout Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

These are just three examples of statues that could be removed from Grand Rapids, because of their endorsement of White Supremacist values. Many more could be, and should be, considered for removal. However, what is more important than removing statues, would be for the dismantling of institutions that promote and practice white supremacy in Grand Rapids.

Aqui Estamos y No, Nos Vamos! Grand Rapids rallies against racist anti-DACA policy

September 6, 2017

Last night roughly 500 people marched, chanted and rallied to denounce the racist anti-DACA policy put forth by the Trump administration yesterday.

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is a policy adopted under the Obama administration because undocumented youth had forced the previous administration to not add them to the more than 3 million who had already been deported.

The new position taken by the Trump administration will impact 800,000 undocumented youth and their families. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth will lose their jobs every month, hundreds of students will be forced to drop out of school, families will lose their main financial support. Everyone will feel the impact of losing young undocumented workers, whether we are aware of it or not.

The march led by DACA youth moved through downtown Grand Rapids last night, shutting down streets, taking over all traffic lanes, as you can see in this video of the march on Pearl Street.

Some allies who attended the march last night wanted to insert their own perspective on the new Trump anti-DACA policy, bringing American flags and wanting to name DACA youth as Americans. Such statements are always problematic. We cannot forget that US foreign policy – that it, US political, economic, and military intervention – is largely responsible for creating the conditions that have forced people to flee their homelands. Today, people continue to be criminalized, displaced, murdered and disappeared as a direct result of US-trained repressive security forces in their country of origin and transit, only to be confronted with a militarized border, racist laws, and an official xenophobic rhetoric.

The march ended up at the Calder Plaza, with the final chant being – Aqui Estamos y No, Nos Vamos! We are here to stay! We are not leaving!

After the march there were several DACA youth speakers and other members of the immigrant community. The Movimiento Cosecha Grand Rapids organized the action and invited people to continue to be engage and active, as this fight is just beginning. Members of Movimiento Cosecha also made it clear that they are not seeking immigration reform, instead they are demanding Respect, Dignity and Permanent Protection. For those of us who are allies, let us honor their demands and stand with them no matter the consequences.

Restaurant Workers don’t Need Private Fundraisers, they need support to organize and build worker-led movements

September 5, 2017

On Tuesday, September 12, Lilly Tomlin and Jane Fonda will be in Grand Rapids for a private fundraiser for the One Fair Wage campaign.

The One Fair Wage campaign is a project of the Restaurant Organizing Committee, which is based out of New York City. 

The Restaurant Organizing Committee (ROC) is a movement that is made up of people who work in the restaurant sector – wait staff, people who bus tables and cooks. This 25,000 member movement is fighting for better working conditions, benefits and better wages all across the US.

I met several organizers with the ROC at the US Social Forum held in Detroit years ago and was immediately impressed with their understanding of the issues and their commitment to fighting with other restaurant workers who are some of the most exploited in the US.

The private fundraiser that features Tomlin and Fonda states the following:

Did you know that Michiganders who rely on tips only make $3.38/hour? We invite you to join us, along with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, to raise the minimum wage and ensure that all all Michiganders have One Fair Wage.

This awful disparity in pay is in part because the larger trade unions did not fight to include restaurant workers and migrant farm labor into the national minimum wage battles of the 1930s and 40s. The Restaurant Organizing Committee is trying to change this dynamic and is part of a larger movement in the country to fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage for all workers.

However, a fundamental problem with the private event that is being hosted in Grand Rapids is that it is not being organized by those who work in the restaurant industry. In fact, not only is this private event not organized by restaurant workers, the cost of the private event is such that it excludes the very workers it seeks to support.

The minimum ticket fee to be able to come and hang out with the stars of the show, Grace and Frankie, is $250 per person. For those who contribute $500 – $1000 per ticket will be able to be part of a much smaller event with Fonda and Tomlin and even get their picture taken with the long-time TV and Hollywood stars. 

Such events are terribly problematic. First, these kinds of private fundraisers offer people with disposable wealth the opportunity to contribute money that is often a way for those with economic privilege to feel like they are contributing to “the cause.”

Second, movements like the Restaurant Organizing Committee and the $15 an hour minimum wage campaigns are effective precisely because they are led by those who are most negatively impacted. Restaurant workers can relate to other people who work in that industry and build the kind of relationships necessary to build unions and movements that can make a real difference in people’s lives.

Lastly, private events like these completely miss the point about the value of building grassroots movements. If the people who attend this event were really interested in supporting the Restaurant Organizing Committee, they would use their wealth to pay restaurant workers to be able to organize their fellow workers. Aside from paying workers to organize, they could be giving money to cover the cost of child care or other daily expenses that restaurant workers are often unable to pay because they cannot afford basic necessities with a $3.38 an hour minimum wage.

Working class people don’t need sympathy, charity or handouts, they need allies that will support their organizing efforts on the terms of working class people.

GR Bus Driver’s Union confronts Mayor Bliss during Labor Day walk

September 4, 2017

Earlier today, members of the Grand Rapids Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and supporters, gathered near the Ah Nab Awen Park in downtown Grand Rapids. Several hundred people were getting ready to participate in the annual Mayor’s Labor Day Walk with the ATU members wanting to make a statement about the failure of Mayor Rosalynn Bliss to honor the bus driver’s union contract.

Just last week, the ATU protested at The Rapid Board meeting, where an ATU member was arrested, while Mayor Bliss and other board members voted to give The Rapid CEO a raise.

ATU members and supporters led the walk and while crossing the Grand River on Bridge St, labor activists stopped moving and forced walkers, including Mayor Bliss, to go around them.

Forcing people to walk around them, the labor activists then were able to surround the Mayor, continuing to engage her about her union busting tactics. By the time the Labor Day walk arrived at the corner of Bridge and Front Street, the Mayor was so rattled by the presence of labor activists and their supporters, she stopped walking and waiting for GRPD officers to escort her away from those protesting.

ATU members and supporters stayed at the corner of Bridge and Front Street, where they engaged other people who were participating in the Mayor’s Labor Day Walk. Some people were clearly upset with what the labor activists were doing and didn’t understand why they were protesting the Grand Rapids Mayor. This writer overheard one person say that this was an inappropriate action for the activists to take. One activist responded by saying, “What don’t you understand? This is a labor protest on Labor Day!

Here is some video of the ATU members and supporters confronting the Mayor on the corner of Bridge and Front Street.

After about 15 minutes, the Grand Rapids Mayor finally decided to give up and walk back to where the Labor Day walk began, instead of continue on the route that her supporters had taken.

Clearly, this was a victory for the ATU members and their supporters. The Mayor of Grand Rapids will not soon forget (as she walks away in the photo to the right) this display of labor solidarity, but it might take the proposed boycott of the Transit Millage this November to get the Mayor to actually agree to renegotiate the contract with the Grand Rapids Amalgamated Transit Union.


Hate Groups, Hate Mapping and Grand Rapids

August 31, 2017

Two weeks ago, WOOD TV 8 provided airtime for a West Michigan white supremacist group and then failed to adequately question them on their philosophy and practice. 

The WOOD TV 8 story cited the Southern Poverty Law Center Hate Map, which listed the white supremacy group as one of three “hate groups” in the area.  The other two groups given the “hate” designation by the SPLC are Act for America and the Grand Rapids chapter of the Nation of Islam.

Act for America is a national group, but we could not find any solid evidence that the Grand Rapids chapter still exists. The hyperlink on the side-panel of the SPLC Hate Map is even a dead link. The only real piece of info we could find online about the GR chapter of Act for America is from 2008 and identifies Mark Lee as the contact person.

The third group, the Nation of Islam, hardly seems like it deserves the designation as a hate group. The Nation of Islam in Grand Rapids, like most chapters, has worship services, distributes the Nation newspaper, hosts study groups and also is involved in various charitable activities.  Whatever one thinks about the theological views of the Nation of islam, they have never engaged in acts of violence or terror against anybody in Grand Rapids to my knowledge. Therefore, the SPLC inclusion of the Nation of Islam in Grand Rapids on their hate map seems rather dangerous and problematic.

It is dangerous to include the Nation of Islam in Grand Rapids on the Hate Map because it could make them the target of state surveillance, state repression or white vigilante violence. It is problematic to have the Nation of Islam in Grand Rapids on the list, because there is simply no evidence that they promote or practice hate.

The Southern Poverty Law Center does not provide a very well thought out rational for what lands groups on the Hate Map. Here is what the SPLC says about the Hate Map:

Each of the three brief explanations for the Hate Map are vague and rather limiting. The focus of the Hate Map is on groups that also tend to not have a great deal of power and are often seen as extremist groups. In the above description of Hate Groups on the map it states that the list was compiled in part by “law enforcement reports.” Let’s stop right there. Think about the amount of harm that police officers, ICE agents, etc cause people, particularly communities of color. Think about the very function of cops, which neighborhoods they spend the majority of their time in, who they stop, who they harass and who they arrest, detain and deport. I don’t really care if we call it hate or not, the fact remains that the GRPD causes way more harm to people than does Act for American GR or the small group of white supremacists known as the Gallows Tree Wotansvolk Alliance. This should not come as a surprise since they have one-third of the city’s budget at their disposal and they are better armed. So why isn’t the GRPD on the SPLC Hate Map?

But let’s not stop there. What about a group like the Acton Institute? Here is a group which promotes outright imperialism, white supremacy and Islamaphobia. The Acton Institute has nothing but contempt for the poor and promotes policies that dismantles any real safety net.  Hell, even one of their board members is part of an organization that is undermining progressive politics in Latin America

Then there are groups like the West Michigan Policy Forum, which has won tax breaks for the rich, passed a Right to Work law in Michigan, undermined public sector pensions and is in favor of redirecting more public money into private hands. Sounds like hate to me.

Grand Rapids is home to numerous churches, which are overtly anti-LGBTQ. The SPLC says that,hate groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people.” Seems like faith institutions, which are anti-LGBTQ fit this definition of hate.

Faith institutions also invest a ton of money into not allowing women to have control over their own reproduction. Many faith institutions also promote patriarchy and work to undermine many feminist gains that have been made in recent decades. How is this not hate?

Then there is the DeVos family and all their foundations. Each of their family foundations funds groups which promote taking away a public safety net and putting more public money into the private sector. The Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation, along with other DeVos foundations have provided funding to anti-LGBT groups over the years. The DeVos family has even spent millions to defeat LGBT marriage equality in several states over the years. 

What about the Immigration Customs Enforcement officers in Grand Rapids. One of the main functions is to tear families apart, by arresting, detaining and deporting people simply because they are undocumented. Seems to me that entities that want to destroy families are engaged in hate.

What about all the development corporations and businesses that are gentrifying Grand Rapids at an outrageous pace? These developers are displacing families, destroying homes and existing neighborhoods, all in the name of making more money. How is this not hate?

In other words, one major problem with the Southern Poverty Law Center and its hate map is that is too narrowly defines hate and leaves out the organizations/groups that do the most harm in this community.

(Editor’s note: of course this map could contain a whole lot more groups that engage in hate and harm. We did not address ablism, anti-semitism, settler colonialism or a whole range of other forms of harm and hate that could be added. We invite others to add to this map and share it with others.)